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  • Rethinking Judgment and Opinion as Political Speech in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought
  • David R. Antonini

1. Introduction

Within the current global political context in Western democracies, one might argue that engaging in public discourse about matters of shared concern is not an inviting opportunity for citizens. Generally speaking, participation in public discourse is not something we seek out unless, perhaps, from behind the privacy of our electronic devices. What this might indicate, following an Arendtian insight, is that we currently have no sense of a shared world together. In other words, we have become alienated from that which binds us together: a common world. The primacy of a horiztonal, political relation wherein we speak to one another and not at or against each other is in urgent need of articulation and, for this, we need the thought of Hannah Arendt.

One of her most prevalent explanations for why there is a deep failure to recognize the commonality of our world is that modernity is chiefly characterized by turning away from that which is common and toward ourselves. Thus, if it is true that contemporary citizens do not recognize anything like a shared world, if we are estranged from that which makes it possible to have a unique perspective at all, then our deep hostility toward one another in the political realm is unsurprising. In other words, if our unique perspectives cannot be assumed to be about something shared and common, then all we have are multifarious private perspectives that are not, politically speaking, about anything. We each of us individually take our private perspectives to constitute the totality of what counts as "real" and remain isolated in that perspective; there is nothing seen as common that can function to enliven public debate. In the absence of this commonality, each perspective is free to treat itself as the only "legitimate" one that ought to be considered. Reflecting upon the conditions that present themselves in society, Arendt envisions [End Page 25] a situation in which "men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience" (Human Condition 58).

Given this context, I contend that one of the most urgent challenges citizens face if we wish to retain any meaningful sense of shared life together is to rethink what it means to speak together politically wherein to speak and offer an opinion to others is reflective of a prior engagement with perspectives other than one's own. This essay, then, seeks to accomplish two tasks at once. First, I utilize Arendt's thought as a vehicle for attempting to rethink public discourse, suggesting this as perhaps the political problem confronting contemporary citizens in Western democracies. Second, this very rethinking of public discourse will simultaneously allow me to wade into a more specific debate within Arendt scholarship about the role of judgment in her thought.

2. The Terms of the Debate in Arendt Scholarship

Within Arendt scholarship, it is often argued that she presents two distinct theories of judgment, one from the point of view of the spectator and the other from the point of the view of the actor. Indeed, in his interpretive essay contained in Arendt's Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, Ronald Beiner states: "The question is whether (and to what extent) judgment participates in the vita activa or whether it is confined, as a mental activity, to the vita contemplativa—a sphere of human life that Arendt conceived to be, by definition, solitary, exercised in withdrawal from the world and from other men" (139). Similarly, well-known Arendt commentator Maurizio Passerin d'Entrèves states emphatically that "[i]t would appear . . . Arendt's theory of judgment incorporates two models, the actor's—judging in order to act—and the spectator's—judging in order cull meaning from the past" (246). In recent years, other scholars such as Shmuel Lederman have offered a different response to this dilemma, suggesting that this is not a problem for Arendt's thought at all because actors simply do not engage in judgment. Lederman states that "at...


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